The Rialto Fish Market (Pescheria Nuova) is located near to the Rialto Bridge, on the northern side of the Grand Canal and is next to the Fruit and Vegetable Market. It is closed on Mondays due to the fishing boat crews’ day off.
Although the present building is quite recent, the location of the fish market has been the same since the 14th century. In 1514, the island of Rialto was devasted by a great fire. It was so cold that fire-fighting was impossible, because the wells and canals were frozen over and the blaze burned for twenty-four hours. Among the projects for rebuilding the market, a plan was submitted for a rectangular complex, surrounded by canals. As often happened in Venice, a more conservative design was chosen, with most elements of the previous layout retained.
The present market structure is a neo-gothic porticoed building with large ogival arches and an upper loggia. It was built in 1907 based on a design by Domenico Rupolo and Cesare Laurenti. The latter is also the artist responsible for the bronze statue of St Peter on the left corner, facing the Grand Canal; while the wrought-iron decoration is the work of Umberto Bellotto.
While visiting the Rialto Fish Market, have a look at the capitals at the top of the many columns; both external and internal. The design was at the height of the Symbolism period. The central column on the external group, has four carved heads and indicates the year when the first building was completed in 1905.
On one of the side column capitals,, are carved boats laden with big baskets called “vieri”; that were used to keep the catch in whilst being transported. On the other capitals, you can find sea creatures such as lobsters, crabs, octopuses, scallops and seahorses. The inner group of columns capitals show floral or maritime themes; including a wind rose, a clam shell, a winkle, a water flea, a crustacean, a crab and a fish. Further decorations include the sun, the moon and stars.
THE HISTORICAL PRIVILEGE OF BEING A FISHMONGER
The ancient trade of Fishmonger or “compravendi pesce”, was restricted to old fishermen from Poveglia (a small island in the southern lagoon) and San Nicolo on the Lido. Those who were over 50 and had worked as fishermen for over 20 years, were rewarded by the Republic for their hard work. This trade was exclusively reserved for them, so that they could end their lives away from the perils of the sea. St Nicholas was their patron saint and they gathered in the church of St Beata Virgine ai Carmini.
MEASURING FISH. On a building behind the market, on the side overlooking the Grand Canal; is a plaque indicating the smallest length of various fish allowed for sale. These rules still apply today.The city council established the minimum lengths that each type of fish had to be for sale. This was to preserve fish stocks during the breeding season. Similar plaques can be seen in the Campo Santa Margherita, n the Fondamente della Tana (near to the Arsenal) and within the Palazzo dei Deici Savi.
THE INSCRIPTION – “PISCES PRIMUM CAPITE FOETAT”
The building overlooking the fish market stalls, which houses the State Courts; is accessed by a large staircase with a banister decorated with several small stone “pommels”. These stone carvings show a fisherman’s head, a pine cone, a squid and a shellfish. Beneath the stairway are two permanently closed wrought iron gates, the larger of which has the above inscription, which translates to; “fish begins to stink from the head. This is actually true and useful for any potential customer; but it may also be a metaphor for those that have corrupting powers over others!
FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR THE FISH MARKET
When it opened on the edge of the Grand Canal in 1097, the Rialto fish market was a beacon for Venice’s flourishing maritime empire.Now, after enduring for almost a millennium, one of the lagoon city’s great cultural assets is under threat from mass production of seafood and selfie-taking tourists. Tourists now come to look and photograph; but rarely buy anything. The culture of home cooking has also changed. Customer numbers have fallen dramatically and greater European regulations have driven restaurant owners towards the larger providers; so threatening stall holders financial viability and livelihood. In 2008, there were eighteen vendors; but fewer than half that number remain and some stalls are up for sale. This has prompted campaigns to lobby the local authorities and to urge locals to help save the beleaguered market, by buying more fish.
Andrea Vio, Fishmonger; tells his story. He and his brothers, who come from Burano; run a stall that has been in the family for nearly 60 years. They used to sell 30 crates of seafood a day but are now fortunate to sell four or five.
Vio, recounts that “the market opened on the Grand Canal in 1097 and has been the soul of the city” and that “Venice is all about seafood and the market is at the heart of it; but authorities don’t seem to care about this aspect”.
“Being a fishmonger is a hard life – a 3am rise to buy from local fishermen and a twelve-hour working day”! “Young people are not interested in our work ethic and lifestyle and are not interested in buying and running stalls anymore”.
Market traders are pessimistic about the future, saying the council appeared happy to allow mass tourism to take over the city. It is only a question of time; the only solution is to repopulate the city as tourists don’t buy fish.”
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